Mahmood, one of the biggest pop stars in Italy right now, has a knack for putting things in perspective. Despite his top model good looks and growing fame, he remains humble, always counting his blessings alongside his accolades. When “Soldi,” the song he brought to Italy’s prestigious Sanremo song contest and then to Eurovision, hit 100 million YouTube views back in June, he was quick to recall his state of mind eight years ago. Back in 2011, when he was uploading English song covers, he felt elated when he reached 100,000 views. When he took to the stage at Montreux Jazz Festival earlier this year, he reminisced about making music in a Camnago garage with his bandmates three years prior. When he shared news of his eight date European tour, he wrote, “I‘m going to tell you something that a year ago was just a dream.” In July, he posted a photo of himself wearing a T-shirt depicting a younger Mahmood, when he was just Alessandro Mahmoud from Milano, each Mahmood shrugging, sporting an endearing, bewildered expression of wonder and openness. Where he’s from is just as important as where he’s going.
2019 has been a big year for Alessandro. It began with him winning Sanremo with “Soldi,” a song that explores his complicated relationship with his Egyptian father, incorporating Middle Eastern influences with the sounds of hip-hop. Soon after Sanremo, he released his debut album Gioventù Bruciata, which went Gold in Italy. Then, in May, he represented Italy at Eurovision with “Soldi,” reaching second place in the final. This year has changed his life as he knows it, and his dreams have solidified into the reality that extends before him.
Even before Sanremo and Eurovision, Mahmood was no stranger to competition, taking part in X-Factor Italia in 2012. Despite the big wins of his recent life, back then, he took an L. “I was eliminated at the beginning of the program,” he recounts. “I was really devastated because I was studying. I had to do my last exam of secondary school right after. It felt tragic studying with this kind of struggle.” Although this was a blow to his confidence in his abilities, his persistence redeemed him. “One month ago, X Factor called me to to perform as a guest,” he says, satisfied. “So for me. It was my biggest win of all time.” “I learned how to keep my feet on the ground because maybe there’s success today but tomorrow the success could be finished.”
Between his X-Factor rejection and his X-Factor win were years of honing his craft. The budding musician buckled down on studying music and playing instruments. At 19, seven years after he first started taking singing lessons, he began writing songs while working as a bartender. He harkens back to that time when asked what he’d be doing if he didn’t have a music career, “When I used to work in a bar, when I would return home after work, I would write a song every day,” he recalls. “It was my passion, my first passion. It’s difficult to see myself doing other things.”
Unlike other 21st century creatives who are adaptable multi-hyphenates, Mahmood has stuck to his musical guns from the beginning. From being exposed to both Italian and Arabic music growing up, to starting voice and piano lessons at age 12, to sharing his covers on YouTube and participating in Sanremo, “It grew and grew year by year, so now I do this, I do music as my job,” Mahmood says matter-of-factly. He likens his early songwriting as a kind of game, impersonating other artists and trying to tell their story. But for his debut album, he says, “I recognized my sound, you know? And also now that music is always changing, my sound changes a little bit too because it's developing.”
If his sound were an Italian dish, Mahmood remarks it would be “arosto di mia madre.” A roast made by his mother, combining meat and vegetables, letting the flavors commingle in the oven - it’s an apt description. While Mahmood is undeniably a pop star, his sound incorporates contrasting elements - soaring EDM chords, charged piano riffs, thumping trap percussion, dashes of Spanish guitar and Middle Eastern music, intimate moments in his life, and his voice often reminiscent of Frank Ocean, one of his biggest inspirations.
His first album Gioventù Bruciata, which roughly translates to “wasted youth,” is also the Italian title of the classic 1955 film Rebel Without a Cause starring James Dean. Mahmood recognized melancholy in the main character, throughout the songs of his album, including the title track which he finds particularly inspiring, and also in himself. He found it was the perfect phrase to describe this body of work.
Although there is some heaviness in the themes of the album - the difficult relationship with his father who left him and his mother as a child, likening a lover to falling into quicksand, the stagnant air in the suburbs - Mahmood is buoyant. Despite the fever that befell him shortly before our interview, it can be heard in his voice over the phone, and it can be seen in the way he dresses. Unafraid of bright colors and flashy patterns, but no stranger to a classic white T-shirt, it’s no surprise that he’s been embraced by Burberry’s Ricardo Tisci, performing for a recent brand event in London and appearing in their Festive campaign.
Mahmood tells me his Prada camouflage boots make him feel powerful, and that he would wear them to sleep if he could. He doesn’t underestimate what clothing can do for an artist. “For me fashion is a sort of art and it's important that artists aren’t overtaken by their clothes. When clothing takes over the artist, I see it as a damage to them.” Wrongfully assuming he might have started caring about his personal style as an adolescent or since he’s been in the public eye, Mahmood assures, “I’ve put the same attention [to style] since I was born.”
Looking ahead to 2020, Mahmood has another European tour planned, this time with 13 stops. As for what he hopes to accomplish next year, he starts, “I don't know, maybe to write another album because I've started writing new songs. On my second album, I want to do more. I want to show a new face of me, of my project.” Although Mahmood is undeniably soaring to new heights, reaching people beyond his hometown of Milano, he has his feet firmly planted on the ground, even with the type of career he used to dream of having.